IRISH Cheltenham Gold Cup hopes Alexander Banquet and Rince Ri top the weights for the £100,000 De Vere Gold Cup at Haydock Park, the most valuable handicap chase of the National Hunt season so far.

The race, on Saturday, February 24, is the premier trial race for the Aintree Grand National, but also attracts entries from Cheltenham-bound horses. Ten of the first 11 in the betting for the Aintree showpiece are entered in the De Vere Gold Cup.Both Irish challengers have been allocated 12st, while last year's Irish Grand National winner Commanche Court -- another Irish-trained horse - has been given 11st 4lb along with Beau.

The 1999 winner of the corresponding Haydock race, Young Kenny, is on 11st1lb, followed by two more Irish horses, Micko's Dream and last year's Aintree Grand National hero Papillon, on 10st 13lb. Last year's winner of the De Vere Gold Cup, The Last Fling, trained by Sue Smith in Yorkshire, is on 10st 6lb, Welsh National runner-up Moral Support on 10st 3lb, while Haydock Park's own horse Streamstown, also trained in Yorkshire by Ferdy Murphy, has been given 10st 1lb.

Of the 49 entries, 23 are in the handicap proper. Others, which are out of the handicap unless the weights go up if neither Alexander Banquet or Rince Ri run, include strong Grand National fancy Noble Lord on 9st 13lb and Henry Daly's Edmond on 9st 9lb.

Haydock Park's general manager Adam Waterworth expressed delight with the weights. "Either we will have top-fancied Cheltenham Gold Cup horses from Ireland or, if they do not run, only a few horses will be outside the handicap proper", he said.